Southern Ontario Gothic: Prudence, Propriety, Perfectionism...and Peril
I had just finished reading Headhunter by Timothy Findley (this month's Toronto in Literature Book Club selection) and was still radiating a bit with the strangeness of it all, floating around in that in-between place of being absorbed in the universe of a book and being back in the real world. I turned on the TV to kind of snap myself out of it and TVO's The Agenda was on. The episode was about Southern Ontario Gothic literature and, lo and behold, as I watched I soon realized that what they were talking about was exactly what I had just been reading.
The term Southern Ontario Gothic first appeared in print in an interview with Timothy Findley, published in Graeme Gibson's Eleven Canadian Novelists. In the interview, Gibson comments that people had been remarking on the influence of American Southern Gothic in Findley's work, to which Findley replies (in a jokingly defensive manner), "sure it's Southern Gothic: Southern Ontario Gothic. And that exists."
Southern Ontario Gothic is a sub-genre of the Gothic literature genre. Gothic literature originated in England in the late 18th Century and became popular with books such as Frankenstein and Dracula. An important sub-genre of Gothic literature is American Southern Gothic, exemplified by writers such as Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor.
Southern Ontario Gothic marries the ordinary, everyday-ness of literary realism with the horror and terror of the evil that lurks beneath. Its writers share a strong sense of regional place, and they depict and often celebrate the small details of daily life in that place while also exploring the other side of the everyday, what The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature describes as "the merciless forces of Perfectionism, Propriety, Presbyterianism, and Prudence" (emphasis mine):
Traditionally the Gothic deals with confinement, illness, madness, demonism, secrets, live burial, and fear. Usually an imperilled heroine searches for the clues to her identity in a ruin or a confining architectural space like a dungeon. In the Southern Ontario tradition, however, the threat to the female protagonist can come from the wilderness, from cabin fever, or from uncommunicative husbands. (1085)
Writers in the Southern Ontario Gothic tradition typically use elements of the Gothic - repression, desire, trauma, monstrosity, the uncanny, the supernatural - to explore or expose racial, gendered, religious, and political hypocrisies. Interestingly, some of Canada's most canonical writers are often described as working in the Southern Ontario Gothic mode; writers like Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart, and Alice Munro.
People's lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable - deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.
- Alice Munro, Lives of Girls of Women
Here are four Southern Ontario Gothic reads recommended by guests on The Agenda:
- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, recommended by Jane Urquhart
- The Donnellys Trilogy (three plays) by James Reaney, recommended by Monika Lee
- Perpetual Motion by Graeme Gibson, recommended by Michael Hurley
- All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, recommended by Shani Mootoo
You can watch the complete episode on Southern Ontario Gothic below: